Hurricane Delta slammed into Mexico’s Caribbean coast early on Wednesday packing maximum winds of 175kmph (110mph).
A weakened Delta hit the Yucatan Peninsula near the city of Puerto Morelos as a Category 2 storm, the National Hurricane Center said.
On Tuesday, it had reached “extremely dangerous” Category 4 status. The hurricane was downgraded to Category 3 as it approached the peninsula.
It hit Mexico’s Riviera Maya coast, which is home to major tourist resort towns including Cancun, although the number of visitors has plummeted because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Thousands of tourists had hunkered down in emergency shelters as the storm approached with a potentially life-threatening storm surge.
By nightfall on Tuesday, Cancun’s streets were mostly empty, shops closed and windows covered by wooden sheets or crossed with adhesive tape to try to prevent them from shattering.
More than 40,000 tourists in Cancun and neighbouring resorts were evacuated, the head of the area’s hotel association, Roberto Citron, told the AFP news agency.
Most were Mexicans, but they also included foreigners, notably from the United States.
In Cancun alone, more than 160 shelters were set up.
The authorities said the emergency shelters had been sanitised to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, which has killed more than 81,000 people in Mexico and battered the key tourism industry.
“To prevent the spread of COVID-19, the same measures have been taken in the shelters as in hotels, such as the use of gel and face masks,” said Cintron.
Soldiers wearing masks and face shields were seen preparing to deploy for relief efforts.
“The order has been given to mobilise up to 5,000 troops with all the necessary equipment to protect the population,” President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador told reporters.
The Cancun and Cozumel airports were ordered to close, and non-essential activities in the state of Quintana Roo were suspended.
People living in the area stocked up on food, drinking water and wooden boards to protect their homes as the storm approached.
“We’re rushing to get wood for the windows. We only learned this morning that the hurricane was coming here,” said Laura Mendez, a 54-year-old in Cancun.
Fishermen hauled their boats ashore to prevent them from being swept away.
Delta is forecast to bring heavy rainfall and floods to parts of the southeastern US later this week.
The governors of US states Alabama and Louisiana declared states of emergency on Tuesday ahead of the storm,
Alabama Governor Kay Ivey ordered all tourists and visitors to evacuate coast, and extended a price gouging law, preventing businesses from charging excessive prices, to include hurricane Delta.
As our coastal areas are still recovering from #HurricaneSally, another system, #HurricaneDelta, is making its way toward the Gulf Coast and could potentially have a significant impact on AL. I signed a State of Emergency to begin Alabama’s preparation process. #alwx #alpolitics pic.twitter.com/JS5aiQXCom
— Governor Kay Ivey (@GovernorKayIvey) October 6, 2020
Delta is the 26th named storm of an unusually active Atlantic hurricane season.
Over the weekend, six people died and thousands were forced from their homes as Tropical Storm Gamma triggered floods and landslides in southeastern Mexico.
In September, meteorologists were forced to break out the Greek alphabet to name Atlantic storms for only the second time ever, after the 2020 hurricane season blew through their usual list, ending on Tropical Storm Wilfred.